Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Extraterrestrial Contact and Scientific Revolutions

First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization could provide new insight into science and technology. This information might be given to us directly by an alien civilization or it could be gleaned from interaction. No matter what the form, scientific information will have an impact on our society. The question is what type of impact: will it be positive and transformative, or negative and destructive?

It’s easy to assume that knowledge of advanced alien technology would be a good thing. Many people hope that extraterrestrial visitors will help us solve our environmental and energy issues. While such technology might be of assistance in the short term, what would the long term impact be on our economy and our scientific community?

For this I return to the Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn clearly marks the difference between “normal science” and “scientific revolutions”. Normal science is built on a paradigm or achievement. Typical research occurs within the framework of this paradigm, with scientists working to add knowledge to the paradigm. For Kuhn it comes back to the student experience, which is of course how we train scientists. Students learn from professors who in turn are the established researchers and scientists in a given area. Thus the same “concrete models” of how that particular research area is shaped become the rules that students will accept. Paradigms help scientists create boundaries in their particular field, which in turns gives them the parameters to develop scientific questions and do more research to answer those questions.

This “normal science” may seem quite stifling and can actually hinder technological development. Kuhn says that most scientists are engaged in “mopping-up operations” for cleaning up the results of a particular achievement. Kuhn says one of the biggest problems is matching facts to the theory, or trying to support the paradigm rather than ask questions that could change it entirely. The “puzzle solving” nature means that often scientists are researching questions for which they think they already know the answer.

Novelties of fact are ones which are outside of the realm of expectation. Kuhn says this is the act of discovery. It comes down to a “crisis” in the scientific system and the result is a shifting of the paradigm as new theories emerge and new questions are asked. Normal science is the process of bringing theory and fact into closer agreement.

So, what happens when that new fact is provided for us and from outside our scientific system? How would our “normal science” respond? Perhaps it arrives in the form of a significant anomaly. The aliens provide us with information about a new piece of technology that would allow us to create a great deal of energy with much less fuel and environmental impact. This would be heralded as a huge step forward for humanity. But what happens to “normal science” along the way? As Kuhn describes crisis reaction, the theories and research shift to respond to the anomaly. But this is in normal human time. Having new technology just dropped on us speeds this up significantly. Even more perplexing is that the new technology would likely present a whole host of scientific paradigm shifts and thus many normal science crises to consider.

Kuhn argues that scientific revolutions are essential for human development. They force us to look at things in new ways and not let our scientific bureaucracy stand in the way of achievement. He compares scientific revolution to political revolution. Certain camps appear in favor of one idea or another. They have a vigorous debate. Eventually one side wins out and the whole paradigm goes lurching forward.

Does extraterrestrial contact provide enough time for this human process to occur? What if we get technological innovation after technological innovation thrust at us? Will our scientific community fall into chaos? Will our “normal science” be blown up beyond repair?

These are the issues I will examine next week.

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